Whitney pushes boundaries of modern art

It's here again, the Whitney Museum of American Art's survey of what's moving and shaking in the art world. The 2002 Biennial, on display through May 26, is its largest exhibition since 1981.

The show brings together a razzle-dazzle of new and newish art forms, such as sound art, Web-based art, and performance art by 113 emerging American creators, bursting with raucous energy.

Their work pushes aside the tried-and-true and expands on the contemporary art genre with a range of cultural motifs that enlighten, provoke, and inspire.

The exhibition, which includes paintings and stained-glass works, fills four floors of the museum and spills outside, where five sculptures dot Central Park.

Among the better-known names are sculptor Kiki Smith, painter Vija Celmins, performance artist Meredith Monk, and photographer Lorna Simpson.

What does the show's cacophony of voices tell us about the state of culture in the United States? A few lines of harmony are evident: a global outlook, craft-and-labor-intensive art, continued emphasis on pop elements, and a quest for connections.

A global palette

Instead of focusing on their own backyard for subjects, some of these artists take the whole world as their purview. Chan Chao, for instance, returned to his native Burma (Myanmar) to make color photographs of rebels against the military dictatorship. His lush portraits of pro-democracy refugees portray the beauty and dignity of humanity.

At the other extreme are Conor McGrady's charcoal sketches, spare evocations of man's inhumanity to man. These are memory drawings, evoking the violence in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "Door" (2000), a starkly eloquent drawing of a splintered door torn off its hinges with a hole bashed in it, speaks volumes about the holes in the hearts of those who persecute.

Stephen Dean's exuberant video "Pulse" (2001), with its saturation of riotous color, contrasts sharply with Mr. McGrady'sblack-and-white images.

The footage, which Mr. Dean calls a "cinematic painting," aims to convey the feeling of time passing by.

The video documents a 10-day festival in India that celebrates the coming of spring. Participants first daub themselves with bright paint, then throw heaps of colored dust in the air. The celebration culminates with participants dumping buckets full of paint on one another.

Some of the artists featured in the exhibit return to the origins of art in crafts. Rosie Lee Tompkins creates cubist fabric collages on her wall quilts. Judith Schaechter's stained-glass compositions feature hallucinatory images. In "Pale Oval" (1999), for example, birds circle above a pre-Raphaelite maiden lying in a pool in the forest.

Vera Lutter makes gigantic prints with a camera obscura, in which she seals herself in a darkened shed, penetrated only by a pinhole of light to produce a negative image after hours or days of exposure.

Her harbor scene of a ferry landing in Germany looks like a radioactive X-ray, with one spectral boat at a pier and another just a ghostly trace.

Contrasting with these intensely hands-on works are a host of pieces using high technology to create new forms.

Peter Sarkisian's "Hover" (1999) is a white cube, animated by color videos projected on each surface.

The videos show a woman and child, as if inside the cube, exploring its planes – first in peaceful slow-motion, then frantically slapping the walls in an accelerating crescendo of desperation.

Jeremy Blake's magisterial "Winchester" (2001-2) is a digital video he calls a "time-based painting" projected on a plasma screen.

Its subject is the metastasizing rooms of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. (The heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune kept adding rooms to her mansion, convinced that ghosts of those killed with the guns would haunt her when she stopped.)

Black-and-white images of the house's exterior dissolve into the shadow of a figure shooting a rifle, then break up into jagged lines like REM sleep tracings. Color stains seep into the frame, replacing the house with skull-like shapes.

Musical motifs

Cross-fertilization is evident in the exhibition, with music exerting a strong influence on the visual art. Janine Gordon photographs punk rockers whirling in a mosh pit ("I'm a Human Bomb," 2001). Christian Marclay, a pioneer in hip-hop DJ culture, creates an installation that spoofs rock-'n'-roll bands. Cymbals and drums reach the ceiling; the neck of an acoustic guitar curves backward like a cobra. The bizarre forms suggest, the artist says, "music for the imagination."

Tracie Morris also comes from the music world, and blends hip-hop, funk, jazz, and rock into sound poems. One composition, "A Little," alludes to the horrors experienced by female victims of child sexual abuse. It is filled with nonsense-syllables like scat singing that rise to a hysterical pitch.

Other spillovers from pop culture include Ari Marcopoulos's photo series on snowboarders. And Luis Gispert mingles high and low elements in his gaudy photographs of cheerleaders reenacting High Renaissance scenes.

In "Untitled (Three Asian Cheerleaders)," 2001, one cheerleader cradles another in a Pietà posture, while a third floats like an angel of the Annunciation.

Making a connection

A theme underlying many works is the link between man and nature. Vija Celmins paints spider webs, making visible the gossamer filaments that we often feel more than see. In Anne Wilson's "Topologies," she dissects webs of black lace, then reassembles them in arrays that resemble living creatures, from the micro to the macro.

In their videos, several performance artists stress making human connections.

Praxis (husband-and-wife collaborators) try to reach out to strangers in their performance art piece called "The New Economy" (1998-2002).

From their East Village studio in New York they offer passers-by hugs, foot washes, dollar bills, or band-aids to cure visible or hidden wounds. Like Fluxus artists of the '60s and '70s, they say they aim to merge life and art, offering nurturing comfort to replace rapacious capitalism. The gist is: Down with narcissism. Up with communalism.

An example of such altruism is a work on display by the Rural Studio, Auburn University architecture students who build houses out of recycled materials for poor residents in Alabama. Its founder, the late Samuel Mockbee, believed architecture should inspire communities, improve life, and be responsive to its environment.

The work that best sums up the show's spirit is Lorna Simpson's "Easy to Remember" (2001).

She constructs a wall-sized grid of 15 male and female mouths moving on film, humming the Rodgers and Hart song.

What could be a dissonant jumble emerges as a concord of sound, like gospel singers crooning a spiritual without words. The notes waft through the gallery like a gentle but persistent wind.

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